Sunday, September 30, 2012

Land Rover LR4 - Be Careful How You Use It

It's a rare treat to test a Land Rover. Designed to tackle the challenges of driving off the pavement and also to look sharp at the country club, these upscale British vehicles have a long history and a special panache.

At the top of the lineup, the Range Rover is king. But a little smaller and easier to manage--both to drive and to finance--is the Land Rover LR4.

You can tell it's a Land Rover, from the bold upright textured grille to the tall rear windows to the side scoop in front of the front doors to the name across the rear asymmetrical tailgate. And inside, it's a special experience too, with rich leather, handsome metallic trim and a killer sound system--as well as highly sophisticated offroad driving technology.

The LR4 is a polished beast. Despite its medium-size SUV appearance, it weighs 5,659 pounds. This gives it a real sense of owning the road (it's pressed down onto the tarmac pretty forcefully). Lucky for its pilot, though, the LR4 comes with a mighty 5.0-liter V8 that churns out 375 horsepower and an equal amount of lb.-ft. of torque. That's good for about a 7.5-second zero to sixty time -- if you feel like driving it quickly.

Of course, you do pay at the pump, and I eked out just14.7 miles per gallon over my test week. The EPA gives the car ratings of 12 City, 17 Highway. The environmental scores are mixed: the Air Pollution score of 6 is surprisingly good, but the Greenhouse Gas score of 1 is the lowest I've seen on a test car.

Inside the car, all is padded, top-quality, and looks like it can withstand any rigors you toss at it. There is a triple sunroof overhead, two gloveboxes, and room for seven folks with all the seats up. I found that with the rear seats folded flat, the 40/20/40 second row made carrying long slender loads easy--even with four passengers. The bass fit in easily--and with the luxurious carpet and low cargo floor, it was a snap.

The front seats themselves are worthy of any posh club or your living room. The leather is old world--soft and supple--and the cabin feels friendly and familiar. I thought the wood trim on the front console looked like it was not originally from a tree, but the doors are lovely to see. 

The audio and video in the car was top-of-the-market. Enjoy the 380-watt harmon/kardon system with its 11 speakers or step up to the The 825-watt Logic7 system with its 17 speakers! Rear riders get twin screens on the two front seatbacks and cordless headphones to watch whatever their hearts desire. The DVD changer is up front. You can connect your game console to take the fun on the road, too. "Are we there yet? Who cares?"

I'm not sure many happy owners take their beautiful four-wheel-drive baby offroad but if they do, there are many ways to tackle it. The fully integrated Terrain Response system lets you move a dial on the center console to select from five different settings, each represented by an icon:
  • General Driving - Where I kept it for my test week
  • Grass/Gravel/Snow - For when you're worried about your wheels slipping
  • Sand - Sand Launch Control makes it easy to start out without getting bogged down
  • Mud and ruts - Bad dirt roads become something easy here
  • Rock Crawl - It applies low level brake pressure when you're maneuvering around on rocks in first or reverse at low speed
You also get Hill Descent Control, which keeps you from rolling too quickly when going downhill. I tried this years ago at an event and it's amazing--and works all by itself. Gradient Release Control also pitches in when going steeply downhill, supplementing braking even when you're not pushing on the pedal. Even more - Gradient Acceleration Control works on the brakes to keep them pumped up and ready for anything. I'm not sure I understand exactly why there are so many different bits of technology at work, but it is a thing of wonder. And it won't make a bit of difference if you just go back and forth with your LR4 on the interstate.

What goes down must sometimes go up. For that, there's Hill Start Assist, which keeps you from moving backwards when you're climbing a hill and move your foot from the brake to the accelerator. Nice when driving in San Francisco.

The remarkable Surround Camera System gives you a near 360-degree view around the car, thanks to five digital cameras. Yes, you get special features in a car like this.

Pricing? If you've been shopping Range Rovers, this will seem like a bargain. The "standard" LR4 begins at $49,950, including shipping. The HSE model, like my tester, comes to $54,175.

The feeling of driving a car like this is intoxicating, but may lead to bad behavior if you don't control yourself. The high, royal driving position, along with the sports car engine power, led me, in a fit of impatience, to change lanes and cut someone off. I knew I could make it, but the man was not amused and followed me home to tell me so. He was right, and I apologized. With great power comes great responsibility, right? If you buy one of these, be careful how you use it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Honda Ridgeline - Trucks? From Honda?

Unit-body construction and a one-piece look
The Ridgeline has a great name. It conjures up images of the open country, a dirt road, and a rugged outdoor lifestyle. From a company that traditionally didn't sell trucks in the U.S., it's a whole different deal. But the Ridgeline is a little different from, say, a Ford F-150. It's more like an oversized Accord with a half ton payload and 5,000 pounds of towing capacity.

The Ridgeline holds five people easily--and they will be comfortable there. That's because, unlike your typical pickup, the Ridgeline is a unit body vehicle, rather than a body on a separate frame. It also has four-wheel independent suspension and front and rear stabilizer bars. Comfy.

You can tell there's something different when you look and see no division between the four-door cab and the five-foot bed. It's all integrated into one chunky piece. The sides taper back more gracefully than your regular truck.

Tailgate drops or swings to the side. Trunk holds 8.5 cu. ft.
The truck bed, protected by a steel-reinforced composite liner, offers a two-way tailgate that drops down or swings to the side--something from the old Ford station wagons. And even more exciting--there's a lockable 8.5-cubic foot trunk built right into the bed--so you can stash things safely away from prying eyes.

Honda gives the Ridgeline a strong 3.5-liter v6 that puts out 250-horsepower and 247 lb.-ft. of torque through a five-speed automatic transmission. I did not haul anything in the bed, so I can't say how that would affect performance, but the V6 seemed to move the 4,500 pound vehicle with alacrity if not exactly daintiness down the road. Honda claims 1,100 pounds of payload and comparable towing ability to the pickup market leaders.

The EPA's fuel economy numbers are 15 City, 21 Highway and 17 Average. I accumulated 16.1 mpg during my time with the truck, about right figuring on a lot of in-town (not dirt road) motoring. EPA Green Vehicle Guide numbers are 6 for Air Pollution--pretty good--and 2 for Greenhouse Gas--dismal. This is not the poster child for Honda's environmental efforts, for sure.

Inside, the rugged, no-nonsense mood of a truck prevails, but it still has those squared-ring door pulls with their grippy inside surface. There's a satisfying rectangular feel, with the edges nicely rounded. The center console has loads of space, and slides forward to create more. The "above it all" feeling of a pickup is part of the Ridgeline experience, as it should be.

The rear seat lower cushion folds up, so you can carry a substantial amount inside the truck, including, say, your mountain bike (with the front tire removed). The back window slides open with the push of a button.

You can buy the Ridgeline in four levels, from RT to Sport to RTS to RTL. The equipment levels move up as you might expect, with, for example, a move from steel to alloy wheels between the RT and RTS and leather seating in the top-level RTL (and numerous other upgrades). The Sport is a new model this year. My Crystal Black Pearl test Sport tester showed this off, with its black 18" alloy wheels, black honeycomb grille with black surround and black headlight and taillight housings. See a theme here? While this truck, with its all-wheel drive, would gladly drive on a mountain road, you may not want to get the black paint too dusty, either.

Prices start at $30,180 for the RT and top out at $38,110 for the RTL with navigation system. My Sport came to $30,925.

The real question is, who is choosing the Ridgeline over the top-selling (since forever) Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado or Ram 1500? Despite its company name, the Ridgeline is substantially American, assembled in Lincoln, Alabama, and it contains 70 percent North American parts, including the engine and transmission. Most Civics and Accords for American consumption are built in the U.S. these days as well; Honda opened its first U.S. plant 30 years ago in Marysville, Ohio.

But are pickup buyers still wedded to owning one of the American big three? How is this truck playing in the American heartland or rural areas of the U.S.? Satisfied Civic owners may step up to an Accord--or an Acura--but it seems that Ridgeline buyers will likely come from people who test drive the truck and appreciate its comfort and features--and don't care what the neighbors think.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hyundai Veloster Turbo = More Muscle

Menacing face
The Hyundai Veloster is a quirky car (but I like it). I originally sampled a bright yellow one last February and it mixed practical hatchback virtues with reasonable economy and a bit of sportiness.

Now, I'm finishing up a test of the much-awaited Turbo version. While the original car had a 138-horsepower 1.6-liter four, this one, thanks to the air spooling technology, delivers 201 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque from the same displacement. It still manages to rate 30 miles per gallon average (26 city, 38 Highway); I'm averaging 24.7 mpg so far, including a lot of stop-and-go commute driving. The non-turbo model had EPA average rating of 32 mpg and I added up 30.

While my last Veloster was sunny, this one, in Ultra Black, seems more menacing, especially with its huge mouth in front and long stretches of headlamp above. The detailing really does set the car apart, thougth, including the complex architecture of both head and taillamps (really cool at night) and the twin exhausts close to the middle below the rear bumper.

Exciting, edgy, angular
Inside, the same exciting, edgy, angular interior is carried over to the turbo. All the different lines, shapes and textures make it feel like you're having fun, even when sitting in traffic (which is where you get a chance to study them and ruminate on what the designers were thinking). You sit low, sports car style, and the six-speed manual transmission offers a greater feeling of control. I had to be careful to pull left for first gear because it was easy to select third by mistake, but otherwise the trip through the gears was a treat and the shift knob feels comfortable in your hand.

The seven-inch multi-media touch screen greets you with an ascending tune and a glamour shot of the car each time you turn on the ignition. The Dimension Premium audio system works easily and sounds fine, although I wish the USB port was located in a hidden spot, such as the console or glovebox. I had to keep plugging and unplugging my iPod when I parked. The touch screen is simple to use on the go, although, like many cars, the shuffle feature for your iPod has to be reset each time you turn it on. 

The turbo adds a lot of power, but the car doesn't feel especially fast. Mainly tested in zooming away from metered freeway entrances, I was not pushed back into my handsome leather seat terribly hard, but the car did go where I pointed it easily. The turbo in the VW and Audi vehicles, with the same horsepower, feels stronger, although that car's engine is 2.0. Is it a torque issue?

Left side -- one large door
Hyundai must be applauded for introducing a car that's fun and is not simply a coupe version of their compact vehicle. Actually, they have a wide range of cars to choose from, and this is neither a subcompact Accent (sedan or hatchback) nor an Elantra (sedan, hatchback, coupe). It's something else--made most clear by it's amazing doors. There are two full-size doors on the right, as on a sedan, and one larger door on the left--like that on a coupe. The pillar is in a different place on each side. Asymmetry is not a common feature in cars, but this one definitely has it. You can's see both sides at the same time so it's easy to not notice this unique feature.

Right side -- two smaller doors

The standard Veloster I tested in February had a base price of $17,300 and came to $22,000. This one, with the "Ultimate Package" (panoramic sunroof, rearview camera and a few other things) plus Michelin Pilot sport tires ($1,200), base-priced at $21,950 and added up to $26,520.

I'm going to miss this car when it goes--it does what I need it to do and it's fun to walk up to it in the parking lot and get in and zoom away.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Flower Furnace - Aptly Named

At another recent gig
I finally got a chance to see and hear The Flower Furnace last night at the Bistro in Hayward. They deliver what their name promises - beauty and heat. Their three sets mixed psychedelic radio hits from the mid 60s to the mid 70s in the kind of order that we grew up hearing on the radio.

The six-piece band gave some nods to the times,with brightly colored shirts, a bandanna, a top hat, a necklace or two, but there wasn't the long hair of the '60s. The band appears to be more interested in delivering a powerful live performance of songs than replicating the exact look. When you grew up hearing this material on your six-transistor AM radio, or on your record player in your bedroom, it comes to life on stage.

Lead vocalist Jojo Razor founded the group when she discovered the enthusiasm that people had for this music. She has assembled a skilled crew to back her up. She not only was in constant motion, but wandered around the club--even outside--while still  keeping a perfect connection through a long mike cord.

Right behind her stood Tim Walters, the perfect stoic bass presence. To my bass-player ears, he was spot on throughout the three sets, hitting just the right notes without any extraneous flourishes. I could feel the vibration in the floor through my feet. In the tradition of bass greats such as John Entwistle, he expressed little outward emotion, but I saw him smile sometimes in a way that showed he was enjoying himself.

Up front, the keyboardist, Andrea Hensler, did a fine job of conjuring up the right parts for works like the mellotron sound of the Moody Blues' Tuesday Afternoon and also the perfect oddball British police siren of the Beatles' I Am the Walrus--the band's encore and sendoff. She played interesting snippets between sets, including a piece of Booker T and the MG's Green Onions, Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts theme music and the theme from Cheers.

The two guitarists, John Fillipucci and Russell McDonald, manned the rear corners of the small stage. Both delivered some hot leads--from where I was sitting it was hard to tell from which one the sounds were originating. They had their parts down--with an occasional delicious variation--but never dominated. I did notice that although both had microphones, their backup vocals were not always easy to hear--and neither ever sang a lead vocal. I would have liked to hear more from them vocally, but the guitar work was rousing and obviously very well rehearsed. During a break, John told me how hard they work to make it sound as good as it does.

You need a solid set of drums for this kind of repertoire, and the band is lucky to have Scott Acridge. He was fun to watch, too, because he was animated when he played--and sat still--almost like a meditator, with his sticks folded--when waiting--before exploding into action. He gave one of the most enthusiastic dancers in the audience, Karen, a drumstick at the end of the show.

The challenge with this kind of band is to keep it interesting and moving. The three sets were nicely varied, and stayed mostly uptempo. They opened the first set with the James Gang's Walk Away, but before you knew it they were doing the great psychedelic classic, Too Much to Dream by the Electric Prunes (which surely epitomizes band names of that era). The crowd swooned when they neatly segued into Shapes by the Yardbirds. The set continued with classics like the Airplane's White Rabbit, where Jojo not only sounded like but also resembled the inimitable Grace Slick. Then they followed that with Jet--one of Wings' best works from a full seven years later. The group stays in their ten-year spread, but works the ends as well as the middle.

Yes, they actually played In-a-Gadda-da-Vida by Iron Butterfly (another great band name), but spared us the 20-something minute original length with its monster drum solo. A quick turn to Heart's Magic Man showed their versatility (and Jojo's vocal chops once again). I might have liked to hear one of the guitarists sing Iron Butterfly.

The second set opened with what may be the anthem of the entire 60's Psychedelic Scene--Somebody to Love by Jefferson Airplane. And the evening kept getting better and better from there. Bowie's Changes was a big switch--also well done. The list goes on. How about the Chambers Brothers Time? CSNY's Ohio? Peter Frampton's Show Me the Way?

I was completely satisfied when I heard some of my favorites, such as Itchicoo Park by the Small Faces and Piece of My Heart--belted out like Janis by Jojo.

If you love the music of the 60s--whether you're old enough to remember it or not--you MUST experience The Flower Furnace. See their website for details--and a list of their repertoire and upcoming gigs.

Note: If you're in the S.F. Bay Area, they play again on Sunday, September 9 at the Solano Stroll in Albany at 12, 2 and 4 p.m.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Acura ILX - Return of the Integra

The Acura Integra was introduced in 1986 as the smaller of the two models from Honda’s brand new upscale division. It was popular through three generations until 2001, when it became the RSX (sold in coupe form only) as part of Acura’s change to boring alphabetical names. The RSX disappeared after 2006, when Acura changed its marketing strategy.

However, with fuel mileage and sales concerns, a compact Acura with a new name (starting with “I”) is once again on sale, slotting in under the slightly larger and more powerful TSX.

As before, the new car is based on the current Honda Civic, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. Every line inside and out is different—only the basic platform is shared. Here’s how the new ILX stacks up against the last of the Integras and its current TSX sibling:

2013 Acura ILX
2,959 lb
2.0 liter
2001 Acura Integra**
2,643 lb
1.8 liter
2013 Acura TSX
3,470 lb
2.4 liter
*Base model.
**Sedan. Coupe had a slightly shorter length and wheelbase.

The numbers show that the ILX is slightly larger and heavier than the Integra of a decade ago, but is still significantly smaller and lighter than the TSX.

The current Civic, while hailed for its spaciousness, design and efficiency, has been criticized for the perceived down-market look and feel of its interior. The ILX, however, has the nicely finished dash, doors and seats of its larger brethren. That includes the gleaming gray sweep on the dash trim and the finely detailed instrument panel. The leather seats are comfy, too, and the overall feel of the controls is solid and precise. The leather-wrapped steering wheel bristles with audio and cruise control buttons, silvery accents and a nice chrome logo in the center.

The 2.0-liter engine provides enough pep for this car, and I never felt it lag. Of course, the automatic took care of business for me—and that’s the only gearbox you can get with this engine. In the olden days, a manual transmission was standard with an Integra, but today, you need to buy the 2.4-liter model to shift for yourself. 

To be fair, this likely reflects the market. For example, my older son, who chose an RSX as his first new car, opted for the automatic. Today in the U.S., manual shifting is reserved for true enthusiasts, such as my wife, who proudly flaunts a manual six-speed in her car.

The ILX’s 2.0-liter engine earns laudable EPA scores for mileage – 24 City, 35 Highway and 28 Average. I got 24.7 mpg, driving mostly in town. 

The ILX’s styling is well proportioned and uses Acura’s revised grille design, but it isn’t groundbreaking. There’s an interesting meeting of lines below the rear side window that borrows from the oddball ZDX hatchback. The front and rear light units are carefully chiseled, and the undulating concave and convex side surfaces give tribute to BMWs of the recent past. My Polished Metal Metallic (gray) tester looked well dressed wherever we went, but no-one asked me what it was.

There are two ways to dress up the ILX: the Premium and Technology packages. The Premium Package adds leather seats, a powerful and fully-featured audio system, and other goodies, such as power and heated seats and a rear view camera. The Technology package gives you navigation along with the premium audio, including high-tech benefits such as real-time traffic and weather information.

The quality is higher than a Civic, but so is the price. Honda Civic sedan prices, with automatic transmission, begin at $17,645 while the entry ILX is $26,795. Even the Sporty Civic Si runs just $24,845. There is definitely a price jump to go for the Acura. When you add the Premium or Technology package to the ILX it crosses the $30,000 mark in a hurry. My ILX with both packages came to $32,295.

What’s the competition for the ILX? Lexus and Infiniti don’t offer anything to match it. The Infiniti G20 from the 1990s might compare, but it’s gone. The Audi A3, perhaps? It’s a five-door wagon, but a sedan is supposed to be on the way. It’s slightly smaller than the ILX, but hits the $30,000 price point and has nearly identical engine power. Cadillac has its new ATS sedan, but it’s more expensive—and its 2.0-liter engine is turbocharged. Lincoln has nothing. The Volvo S40 is gone. So, Acura now appears to have the compact entry luxury segment to itself!

This upscale compact, assembled in Greensburg, Indiana with a Japanese engine and transmission, is a nice car, if a bit pricey, and offers exclusivity.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dodge Dart - 1965 Model a Flash from the Past

With the all-new, Alfa-Romeo-based 2013 Dodge Dart out and on the road, it felt like a good time to test the original Dodge Dart. Luckily for me, I have a friend, Elena, who owns a beautiful example of the first compact Dart--a glorious and powerful 1965 Dart GT. She let me drive and photograph it on a recent summer day. She then sat down to tell me why she bought it.

I have personal connections to the Dart, as my mother had one back in the late 1960's. Our 1966 baby blue Dart convertible was a fine cruiser, with its durable slant-six engine, three-on-the-tree manual and power top. We also had a 1966 Plymouth Valiant before that--a close Chrysler cousin to the Dart--and the car in which I passed my driver's test (on the first try).

The original 1960 Dart was a full-size car, but it became a midsize in '62 for one year before taking the place of the original Dodge compact--the Lancer--in 1963. It remained a popular vehicle, in sedan, coupe and wagon form, until it was replaced by the Dodge Aspen in 1976. The latter car proved to be a disappointment. Until the 2013 Dart arrived, the compact position at Dodge has been a tough job, filled by the famous "K car" Aries) in the 1980's and others such as the late, unlamented Neon and Caliber.

Elena's '65 GT is a fine driver, looking great from 15 feet. It has not been meticulously restored, and shows minimal changes since its birth during the Johnson Administration. Presumably a repaint, it still looks authentic inside and out. A compact car in its day, it is safely midsize by today's reckoning, and when you're sitting on the big bench seat inside, it feels like a huge car. I figured out why. Besides the gentle rocking motion of the old-fashioned and simply old suspension, I could see the entire hood--and it was as big as a pool table out in front of me through the windshield. The uplevel GT model has chrome trim along the fenders ending in a tiny fin at the corner. Today's more aerodynamic cars, for the most part, show you nothing ahead of the windshield.

Grab the chrome door handle and swing open the heavy metal door. Then, you'll see mid-sixties design in all its glory. With the more fanciful, swoopy 1950's relegated to the past, the sixties cars showed more restraint, especially Chrysler, where designer Elwood Engel, known for the early 60's Lincoln when he worked for Ford, brought a rectangular Danish Modern effect. The silvery, flat dash features separate rectangles for the auxiliary gauges and a flat glovebox door. The gauges included a gas gauge but also a temperature and alternator (electrical) gauge. Today's cars feature "idiot lights." The look isn't flashy, but it's easy to live with and durable.

The steering wheel is big, thin, and hard, and wears a chrome horn ring in its center. No airbags here. In fact, this '65 doesn't even have shoulder belts. The seatbelts fasten like those in today's airplanes. What a nostalgic moment to reach back and find--nothing. There are no neck-saving headrests on the seats, either. You are at much greater risk cruising in this tank.

This is the 1960's. I found small ashtrays in both front armrests and in the center console. They had not been used recently. The dash-mounted lighter remained--today's cars supply them to power portable electronic devices, such as navigation systems. And, of course, there were manual crank windows--even in the top-level Dart.

But what a feeling. The Dart GT, as the sporty model, features a floor-mounted automatic transmission lever and under the hood, a 273 cubic inch (4.5 liter) V8 engine, good for 180 horsepower with a two-barrel carburetor. A more powerful V8, good for 235 horsepower, was also available starting in 1965. The highly-regarded and reliable slant six in the lower level 170 and 270 series generated either 101 or 145 horsepower, depending on whether you ordered the extra-cost version ($50).

This engine in my test car was recently steam cleaned and it looks sharp with its clean, spacious layout freed of today's electronics and smog management technology.

After I stepped in to drive the car and buckled up, I inserted and turned the tiny metal key. It's main part is shaped like the Chrysler pentastar--I remember it from our old family cars. Car keys used to look like your house key before they became the large black plastic electronic gadgets they are today.

The Dart started right up and off we went. With the V8, there was plenty of power, but it sounded much different from recent V8s I've driven. The ancient brakes were effective but you had to really press the pedal. I'm guessing they were drums and not discs. Of course there is no antilock or other high tech assistance available.

The Dart was meant to give Americans comfort and familiarity in a smaller (but not tiny) package, so the car drives much like a full-size Dodge Polara would, meaning it floats a bit, noticeably upon starting, stopping and turning--in other words, most of your driving time. Once the engine warmed up, though I heard very little as we zipped around Elena's surburban neighborhood and took a quick trip on the freeway. Cruising is this car's strong suit, and I'd gladly do so again.

So, why does a person want to drive a nearly 50-year-old car? And why this one? Elena told me she had owned a 1967 VW Bus and had a boyfriend who had a 1960 Corvette, so she fancied some kind of collectible car.

She found the Dart locally on Craigslist. Why a Dart? "It picked me," she says. She liked the looks and the handsome, original interior. And apparently the owner had cared for it pretty well. She has had the Dart for only a short time, but has had no significant problems with it.

That being said, as we returned to Elena's house, a man in a Chrysler PT Cruiser waved to us. We rolled down the window and he said, "Your brake lights aren't working." It's always something--but the charm of old vehicle ownership seems immune to the pains of maintenance, as long as you can drive and enjoy the car.

Kia Sportage Re-imagined

The Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are widely celebrated for being the first small crossovers in the U.S. market, but the Kia Sportage actually came out first--in 1993. I knew someone who drove one and loved it, but this was the early days of Kia, and sales were small in the U.S.

After a short hiatus, the second generation car arrived in 2005 and, with Kia and fellow Korean manufacturer Hyundai under one roof, it was a companion of the Hyundai Tucson.

But it's the third generation that concerns us here, and what a different set of wheels it is. Debuting in 2011, it introduced a whole new look and feel to Kia crossovers, based on the Kue concept car. You can thank the team at Kia's U.S.-based design center in Irvine, California, for the transformation. Presumably they were inspired by Kia Chief Design Officer Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi's design team.

The first two Sportages had the two-box look set by the landmark Ford Explorer SUV in 1990. As these (sometimes) four-wheel-drive models have morphed more and more into tall cars with lots of cargo capacity, there's no reason to stick to this rigid design template.

The upswept nose is very much part of other Kias, with the now recognizable tab grille and grinning slivers of headlamp cluster, it's a smiling face but it avoids the Joker-like grin of recent Mazdas. The side shaping, high window sill line and blocky rear pillar are new and exciting developments.

Inside, my tester was pretty much all gray, and many of the surfaces were hard, as befits a truck. The armrests and center console bin were padded, at least. There are enough black panels and silver and chrome accents to keep the passenger space from feeling low budget, but this is no Mercedes-Benz, either.

The twin grab handles on the console reminded me of those in the first Audi TT--not a big surprise. A surprising forward-jutting section atop the instrument panel, in front of the driver, added some flair but no additional function. The windshield pillars are shockingly thick, but this is part of making the newest Sportage crashworthy. It also helped the new model gain recognition as a 2011 "Top Safety Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

You can get your Sportage in four levels, starting with the base model and moving up through LX, EX and SX models. The LX upsizes the base car's 16-inch alloys to 17-inchers, places LED turn signals on the outside mirrors, adds keyless entry with folding key and most significantly, a six-speed electronically controlled Sportmatic™ automatic transmission, along with solar and privacy glass.

The EX, like my Signal Red test car, bumps the wheels to 18-inch alloys, slips in high performance dampers, LED daytime running lights, roof rails, a rear spoiler, fog lamps and chrome body trim and door handles. The top-of-the-line SX keeps the 18-inch wheels but makes them special, but puts a powerful yet fuel-efficient 2.0-liter turbocharged GDI engine producing 260 horsepower under the hood. This rates dual exhausts, and stands out with sculpted side sill moldings and a unique grille.

The standard engine in every level but SX is a 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine with Continuously Variable Valve Timing. It provides 176 horsepower and has been tuned to deliver a one mpg improvement on the highway over last year's model.

The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide gives the car with the 2.4-liter engine a 6 for Air Pollution and a 6 for Greenhouse Gas; there is one model listed with a 9 for Air Pollution. It's likely sold in California and other smog-legislated states. Both get SmartWay designation.

The base car, which comes only with a manual transmission and two-wheel drive, starts at $19,300. My two-wheel-drive tester came to $28,800. It's possible to get over $30,000 with option packages. These prices include $800 for shipping. 

So, the new car looks good, drives well, and fits right in with the complete repositioning of Kia in the marketplace. What's not to like?